Anyone fortunate enough to have experienced LSD — when it was still legal, pure, and came as a liquid in small bottles sealed and labelled by the Swiss Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company — would have probably noticed experiences closely resembling those recounted by mystics of all stripes over the past five thousand years. A love for, and unity with, all living beings best sums this up; and the Beatles’ All You Need is Love was its anthem. In my case, having taken an exceptionally large dose, I felt I was dying. But, having read the available literature on that drug, I knew this was the ideal effect and ought not to be resisted. So I let myself embrace death, falling towards it with a roller-coaster-like sensation, and not a little apprehension, although I knew that LSD was not toxic in any dose. At the moment when I was certain unconscious and death were about to occur, I felt instead as if a great burden had been lifted, and I was finally freed from something that had prevented me from being my true self. This self initially floated through my own bloodstream, and I saw my inner organs, with the heart pumping, and so forth. Then it was carried as if by a stream of light through the top of my head, pouring out all over the cosmos, where I saw many universes exploding into life, or fading away, in a process that seemed endless. At one point I was near a colossal star which changed colour constantly. I went to touch this star, only then realizing I had no arms or body, but instead actually was everything I saw, except there no longer existed an ‘I’, only the awareness of being conscious that all existence was pure consciousness alone, and all one [as the word used to mean]. As a former atheist and Marxist, I was somewhat slow in grasping the fact that what I saw was a glimpse of God’s mind, which was also my own consciousness, now in a state of indescribably supreme bliss and limitless love. I could have remained in this state literarily forever, desiring nothing else. Time itself no longer existed, but eventually the consciousness of a body, a room, and other people returned, except everything and everyone was self-illuminated, and all was Divine. In the eyes of my friends I saw the same sense of wonder and a love that flowed from all into all with waves of bluish-gold light. No one spoke, for there was nothing to say not said by this infinite love, and the sense of a unity which was God. Indeed, there was only God anywhere at all. The music we had planned to play sat in its covers. The food we had planned to eat remained untouched. We desired nothing except the bliss we already possessed. After what was probably six or seven hours, a thought occurred, and the bliss immediately dissolved into euphoria. Talk began, and the desire to explore this new world soon had us heading out into an incipient dawn, past glowing flowers and living trees, swathed in a pinkish mist. It took a day for the effects to recede completely, and the intensity of our experiences, or their undeniable truth and reality, never really left at all. There was no urge to take more of the drug, since its effects had to be digested and understood. Everyone read Aldous Huxley, R.D. Laing, and, of course, Timothy Leary. But these early experimenters with LSD invariably pointed the way to, mainly, Oriental sacred texts, where our experiences were very accurately described as the nature of enlightenment or self-realization, except this did not wear off. With the Vietnam war raging, and protests against it increasing, dealt with violently in the US, many felt that if everyone took LSD love and peace would rule the world.
Huxley and others had warned Leary to cease promoting LSD publically because it would result in the drug’s ban. They were right. I took it several more times in England before it was made illegal there too, but during the last few sessions I had a distinct feeling that I had learned all it had to teach me, and now ought to cease, and seek a more permanent enlightenment. Yet the lure of an easy fix, a swift route to Nirvana, was hard to resist. Lama Govinda, and other revered spiritual leaders, had taken the drug and concluded that it did indeed produce a reasonable facsimile of the Nirvana state, adding that it wore off, so was only useful in showing someone that such elevated states of consciousness did indeed exist, thus encouraging people to seek for the real thing through meditation and other disciplines. I did once take a street version of what was by now called ‘acid’, finding it barely resembled the real thing.
At this point someone I knew had access to a thousand gallons of pure Sandoz LSD, which he wanted to pour into the water reservoirs of various cities, convinced this would bring peace and love to reign, at least over England. All he lacked was the million pounds to pay for the stuff. Knowing I had, through a friend, access to George Harrison, he persuaded me to ask the Beatle for funding. I agreed, believing, to some extent, in the virtues of such a project. George then still lived in his psychedelically painted house at Esher. Without an invitation, I called at the house, only to find no one home. Weary, I fell asleep on the doorstep, to wake finding George standing over me. Invited in for tea, I explained my mission, which he understood but, like me, had realized acid only took you so far. I asked how one got further, and he explained his attachment to chanting and the Hare Krishna movement, which followed the advice of Chaitanya, a 17th century holy man, who announced that chanting was the only method for enlightenment in Kali Yuga, the worst and darkest of the four Hindu ages – each 25,000 years long. He then gave me a copy of Paramahamsa Yogananda’s wonderful Autobiography of a Yogi, and the soon-to-be-released vinyl single of the Hare Krishna Mantra, this one having the full apple image on both sides [Beatles’ records when released had a cut half apple on one side]. I was to see much more of George in the years ahead, but that day I left feeling I had failed in my mission. I did not read the book or listen to the mantra for some time, but when I did read the book a whole new stage of my life began. I still read it, or rather listen to an audio version now, because it still enthralls and inspires me. In Toronto I would often go to the Hare Krishna temple to chant, because the experience is always uplifting, even now when I chant alone. Like meditation, chanting forces the mind to do what it most dislikes: concentrate on one single thing for an extended period of time. The ego and its thoughts are often fearful, since it knows its end is nigh, yet imagination cannot imagine its own death. When you start off thinking about something particular, and then, 15 minutes later, wonder what chain of associations brought you to an utterly irrelevant thought – often a worry – it is surely not hard to conclude that there is no thinker behind your thoughts – they generate themselves. Who is it observing this process, though? This is the real question: Who am I? It is the same in a dream: who is the observer? I have many lucid dreams in which I am conscious of dreaming, so who is the dreamer? Or who is the ‘I’ conscious of dreaming? The proverbial ‘I think therefore I am’ is entirely wrong, and ought to be ‘I am aware therefore I am’. Thought is the object for a subjective ‘I’, therefore the two are distinctly different. Ask Hegel – he worked it out too, even if his phraseology makes it hard to work out most of what he worked out.
At Oxford I was, initially, miserable and lonely, consoling myself with Yogananda’s book: I could always flee to a Himalayan cave and meditate – such was the consolation. But I became President of the Buddhist Society, and was, for some time, also its only member – so meetings were straightforward: I sat in my 17th century rooms and read books. Eventually, though, I received a stiff note from some authority informing me that the President of any university club or society was obligated under section blah-blah, sub-section blah, of the Oxford Extra-Curricular Act of 1464, or some such, to hold an event of nearly any nature that was open to non-members, its purpose being to demonstrate your club or society’s nature, and to attract new members. The temptation to conclude my letter with Wildean sarcasm must have been massive. Without Internet or Google – or a computer smaller than my college – finding information was a virtual career. I needed a Buddhist monk to give a talk – that was all; that would count as an event. Under ‘Buddhist’ the Oxford yellow pages contained no entries whatsoever. I had heard there was a Buddhist monastery in Scotland, yet, telephoning information operators in every major city and many large towns, asking, ““Buddhist Monastery, please,” I received many amusing or cheeky responses, yet no information, beyond the tacit understanding that no one north of Hadrian’s Wall even knew what a Buddhist was. As a last resort I telephoned a producer I had met on the set of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth – where my first job was ferrying coffee all night long, then accompanying Roman to Tramps night-club, making sure the waiters watered-down the 50 cognacs he drank, no one ever mentioned Sharon Tate (his pregnant wife recently murdered by the Charles Manson cult), I didn’t mention my suspicion that making Macbeth as a sexy love story seemed doomed to fail, and finally bribing a cab driver to make certain he actually entered his home and closed the door behind him. This producer, who had no connection at all with the film, frequently engaged me in talk about the Occult, giving me preposterous books by Madame Blavatsky, and attempting to lure me to what sounded more like orgies than magical rites. My call was thus well received, although its purpose was probably disappointing. He did, however, have a good suggestion: Swami Rama, an Indian yogi he was currently sponsoring – whatever this meant – and would mail me some literature I might find interesting.
I did, as it happened. Swami Rama had agreed to demonstrate some of his yogic powers under rigorous scientific conditions at the Menninger Foundation in America. Amongst a sheaf of publicity releases and propaganda, I found the actual 120-page report produced by the Foundation on its work with the yogi, who had indeed provided conclusive proof of abilities far beyond anything scientists believed possible until then. Wired up to ECGs and other monitoring devices, for example, Swami Rama had first slowed, then stopped his heartbeat entirely for longer than brain-damage and death would result in an average body. A small bird was killed in a vacuum jar, certified dead, and then given to the yogi, who held it in his palms, breathed upon it, soon restoring it to life. He lowered the temperature of his body by some 20 degrees. He made one hand very hot and the other, simultaneously, very cold. In meditation, he dramatically altered his brain waves, and slowed his breathing to one breath a minute. I had read of such feats, and infinitely more spectacular ones, in Yogananda’s book, so they did not amaze me per se; yet to find scientific proof of yogic powers was precisely what I needed at Oxford, where atheism was the norm, and philosophy had become logic, or rather Logical Positivism – which wrestled with issues such as how one could tell a chair existed merely because one could see a chair. Or there was Wittgenstein, whose second magnum opus refuted his first one, and he decided that all problems of philosophy were now purely semantic (which is curiously true, though not in the way he intended: ‘Whereof one does not know, thereof one ought not to speak’). Via the producer, Swami Rama agreed to give a talk for my Society. I made copies of the Menninger report, acquiring much hyperbolic ink in the local media; and then posting up or handing out leaflets announcing the event.
The producer arrived with yogi and a woman in an opulently-restored Rolls-Royce from the thirties. Swami Rama wore Christ-like robes of white raw silk; but although his face shone, there was something unpleasant in his eyes. Greed, as it turned out. The hall was packed, and the Buddhist Society suddenly acquired many members. But the yogi’s talk struck me as lack-lustre, uninformative, repetitive, and mostly concerned with a need for all to visit his ashrams and learn meditation – which anyone can learn in five minutes. Practising it twice daily for at least 30 minutes is the hard part – and no one can teach you that. But people expect the magic bullet, the trick that brings enlightenment in a pill, like LSD, but permanent. In his masterpiece, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche describes how westerners who turn to spirituality treat it in the same manner they applied to material pursuits. If they do this or that, they expect rewards, benefits, praise. They confuse material things, such as clothing, diet, yoga, and so forth, with spirituality, viewing those who act differently as inherently not spiritual. The highest spiritual leader to leave Tibet – the Dalai Lama being more of a temporal authority – Trungpa decided to rid his first western students of their misconceptions. He held one of his first gatherings in a bar, where he arrived wearing a western business suit, not his traditional robes, and drank scotch while talking. The students were in their Indian clothes and beads, many with sadhu dreadlocks. They were shocked, of course; but such was the power of his teaching, his mind razor-sharp, that his point was soon driven home, and everyone abandoned the trappings of another culture for ones of their own, learning that what one ate or drank had no bearing on spirituality, which solely concerned constant awareness of one’s actions, thoughts, character, and the compassionate love for all emanating from the heart. Thus, meditation was not something one did for a set time each day, like exercise; it was a state of awareness to be maintained all the time, not requiring special postures, nor precluded by work or any other activity. Reading something like Yoga Journal, I used to get the impression that there were spiritual shoes, chairs, décor, etc, much as New Yorker ads imply that serious readers or intellectuals must own special book props for bed-reading, with special lights, considerate of the sleeping partner. Both magazines have ads for vacations suited to like-minded people, places unknown to the hoi polloi. It is true that retreats featuring daily 14-hour meditations, and meetings with a genuine master, can be helpful in deepening one’s technique, understanding, and dealing with specific problems. But you still have to return to your world; and only the teachings of a fully self-realized master or guru – someone who knows rather than repeats scriptures – is of any genuine value. The obsession with a vegetarian diet displayed by many spiritual organizations is a misunderstanding of ancient Vedic dietary rules, in which only Brahmins are required to be vegetarian, because their lives were sedentary, involved in lengthy meditations, as were sadhus or reclusive yogis. It has nothing to do with killing animals. The Ayur Veda, the world’s oldest medical text, like ancient Chinese culinary books, regards food or diet as medicine – an idea currently enjoying resurgence, regards food or diet as medicine – an idea currently enjoying resurgence. Ayurvedic medicine defines various physical types, with qualities applying to all things, and known in Sanskrit as gunas.To simplify, there is rajas (active, fiery, aggressive), tamas (slow, lethargic, lazy), and sattvas (pure, untainted, sensitive). The average person needs these gunas to be brought into balance, for he or she will require something of each quality during everyday life, therefore someone with an excess of, say, tamas, ought to avoid certain foods and eat more of others, to restore balance. Only the sattvic person, providing they are solely engaged in meditation, etc, will be required to eat a pure vegetarian diet, without peppers, or any other rajasic or tamasic foods or spices. The specifics are outlined in extraordinary detail, along with the healing properties of countless plants, flowers, and herbs. Only the khshatriya, or warrior caste, is mandated to eat meat, which is highly rajasic and necessary for anyone engaged in much physical activity. As the caste system evolved from being a description of differing human abilities, compared with parts of the human body, into a rigid class system, where birth determined destiny, the Brahmins established themselves as the highest caste (when the original system was equal rule by priest and prince), thus making vegetarianism an elite diet. They also made the cow sacred, since it provided their main source of protein, as milk or curds. To this day, beef is not eaten in India by anyone. Veganism is a modern fad, existing only in the west, and based upon the fallacy that any food derived from a living creature is abuse of that creature. Even honey is stealing from bees, and watching films is abusing cows, since celluloid is made from hooves. People can, of course, eat whatever they wish, but diets tried and tested over millennia strike me as more sensible than ones probably not providing proper nutrition. Ancient cultures all agreed that domesticated animals ought to be treated humanely, and all animals killed in a painless manner. Only the corporate farm introduced abuse and cruelty, treating animals like manufactures. An awareness of nature shows that it devours itself, and everything ends up as food – including us. Is an owl wicked for killing a mouse? Homo sapiens was probably always a predatory omnivore, wisely avoiding certain creatures for reasons of hygiene that must have been instinctive long before religions made them laws.
I digress thus because these issues began to plague me in the Buddhist Society once it had members, and I first discovered that what most people wanted was someone to tell them exactly what to do in every aspect of life. My other task was talking people down from bad acid trips. They would show up at any hour the college was open, or any hour at all if they lived in the college. No one ever said they had taken a drug and now felt awful or terrified. They presented the dilemma as a spiritual crisis, bit I had seen enough people on bad trips to know what was going on, and became quite adept at the art of returning them to a benign universe. The result of this was similar to the situation with new Buddhists: I acquired followers, even devotees, when all I really knew was that I knew nothing worth teaching. By then I had joined Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship and was receiving monthly newsletters with step-by-step exercises leading towards meditation. Concentration was the first stage, and I soon conceded that my university work-load of two 30-page essays a week for each of my two tutors, not to mention learning Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Icelandic sagas, and so on, required all my concentration and more. I nominated a new Buddhist president, stopped answering my door, and began to find that I really liked poetry, as well as the English novel. I came to like my tutors too, Jonathan Wordsworth – direct descendent with access to unpublished manuscripts – and Stephan Gill, authority on Dickens. I also made some friends who have lasted a lifetime, like Martin Amis and Richard Sparks. Christopher Hitchens didn’t make it to a lifetime, alas. But, despite some very good times, I still yearned for the company of someone with whom to discuss spiritual interests in a non-academic way, as seekers not pundits.
I was saddened to find, as my second year began, that Stephen Gill had moved down Turl Street to a senior position at Lincoln College. He had been replaced by someone called William Byrom, with an M. So my tutors were now Wordsworth and Byrom. Bill Byrom was English, but, I heard, had been finishing a Ph.D. at Harvard. I hoped I would like him, since a one-on-one tutorial system is very intimate, and can be hell with the wrong person. I was already being tutored by John Bailey – Iris Murdoch’s husband, and a beautiful soul – over at New College, since neither of my own tutors knew anything about American Lit, one of the few elected courses. Now I found that this Byrom knew American Lit, so would take over from Bailey. I disliked him already, before we’d even met.
Stepping into his rooms for our first tutorial I noticed the smell of incense, and then I saw a framed photograph of Yogananda on the wall. I knew this was, instead, the start of a wonderful friendship. We spent the hour talking about meditation, Rumi, the Upanishads, and a teacher he had in New York named Hilda Charlton, who had been a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba, the guru Tim Leary’s old partner, Richard Alpert, had sought to find out what LSD really was. The story is famous, but can be summed up by the guru swallowing enough acid for two hundred people, with Alpert hoping he hadn’t killed the old man. His answer arrived after a couple of hours, by which time Neem Karoli revealed no effects from the drug at all. He was permanently in the state it produced, so it was like taking aspirin when you do not have a headache. Alpert stayed to learn meditation, returning as Ram Dass, American guru. He often attended Hilda’s sessions, where she taught mainly through silence. Bill Byrom had that inner light in the eyes common in people who have progressed far in spiritual work, and his presence was gentle, his voice often caught with emotion as he spoke of something deep. I loved the man. We probably should have done some Lit work, but, apart from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson, we only discussed God.
During that first Michaelmas term, he went to New York, hanging out with Hilda’s circle, and sharing an apartment with Ram Dass. Evidently, the two did not get along that well – perhaps because their Harvard backgrounds tended to prompt intellectual chatter, which neither of them wanted. When he finally returned, I noticed on his wall a framed colour photograph of someone I thought at first to be Angela Davis, the black activist, with her trademark Afro. I soon learned that this was actually Sathya Sai Baba, proclaimed by Hilda Charlton as Avatar of the Age, a full incarnation of the Divine in human form. Bill had seen film footage of Swami, admitting that he did not like the pomp and ceremony surrounding him, and felt the display of miraculous powers to be contrary to traditional Hindu beliefs that yogic powers were never to be publically revealed. Hilda had told him these rules did not apply to an avatar because miracles were his nature, never diminished by use as normal yogic powers were. Bill intended to visit India and see for himself during the Hilary term vacation.
When he came back everything changed. He too had changed, more serene and filled with light now; also reluctant to say much more than that I must go there myself, for the inner experience was everything, and the rest, the things he had found off-putting, were nothing at all. Swami was everything, and he had no doubt at all that here was the purest incarnation of divinity the world had seen so openly since the advent of Krishna, but was also the first avatar of Siva-Shakti – the combination of the god and his consort, his active aspect – ever recorded by any scripture or myth.
As a boy, Swami had declared himself to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a mysteriously reclusive holy man revered in a small part of northern India, yet unknown in the tiny village of Puttaparthi, nestled in a remote area of southern India, all but cut off from the world. Shirdi Sai had lived in an abandoned mosque, so devotees were never sure if he was Muslim or Hindu. They recognized his sanctity though, by his mere presence, although he too did occasionally materialize the sacred ash, vibhuti – ash regarded as the purest substance, that which has been through the fire. All Bill would say about the ashram was of its intensity, likening it to the smelting of metals, where the dross materials rise to the surface and are scraped off. Instead of the Aum symbol, typical for ashrams, Swami’s gateway had over its arch the symbols of all the world’s major religions, and was named Prashanti Nilayam, ‘Abode of the Highest Peace’ – which is also the meaning in Hebrew of ‘Jerusalem’.
In Sanskrit legend, the appearance of Siva and the start of his sacred dance, signals the end of creation. Bill said not to worry, since Swami had already informed devotees he would come again in a third and final incarnation, to be named Prema Sai Baba. Sathya means ‘truth’; Prema means ‘love’. To some he gave the place and date of this final incarnation, even showing an image of the new body. That date has just passed, showing he knew he would shed the old body long before the time some devotees say he stated as his passing, and still some ten years hence.
Naturally, I could hardly wait for the long summer vacation when I would be able to witness the incomprehensible for myself, witness phenomena I had only read of in Yogananda’s book. Nothing prepared me for what awaited in Puttaparthi, though, or the permanent change it would bring my entire life.
[To be continued]